Innovation isn't just what scientists and engineers do: it's also a feature of many community-based organisations and social entrepreneurs. But the result is the same: new ways of doing things and new products and services that enable people to change their lives.
Innovation for social and economic empowerment
Often, the critical inputs that spark social innovation are seed-funding and partnership. Across Europe, Microsoft supports hundreds of community-based organisations, and the people they help, to realise their potential as innovators.
The Microsoft Unlimited Potential Community Technology Skills programme is a global community-based effort to extend IT skills and economic opportunities for young people and adults. Microsoft is committed to providing the training and tools to create expanded social and economic opportunities that can transform communities and help people realise their potential. The Community Technology Skills programme provides cash grants, software and a specialised curriculum to community technology centres in 102 countries. http://www.microsoft.com/giving
Enabling digital inclusion for visually impaired people in Bulgaria
Like many visually impaired people in his native Bulgaria, Guner Mehmed felt excluded from the digital age. Unable to access information, or communicate with friends on the Internet, Guner felt isolated and found it hard to find fulfilling employment.
Guner's life changed when he joined an IT and business skills training course in Sofia, run by Foundation Horizonti with support from Microsoft and Sofia University's Faculty of Philosophy. Using a new Bulgarian language speech synthesiser known as Speech Lab, Guner learned to use the Internet for the first time. As he explains, “The main thing that has changed my life is that I can now access information from the Internet. I am able to check currency rates online, read electronic books and chat with friends.” Through Speech Lab, Guner has gained immense confidence and new skills, and is now using the Internet to find new employment.
Foundation Horizonti was founded in 1995 to help blind and visually impaired in Bulgaria make the most of new technologies and to gain IT skills to improve their lives and employment prospects. There are 18,000 permanently blind people in Bulgaria and over 40,000 whose visual impairment prevents easy mobility.
In 2004, Foundation Horizonti began working with Microsoft and the Bulgarian Association of Computer Linguistics (BACL) to develop and distribute a Bulgarian voice synthesiser that can act as an interface to software applications for the visually impaired. Microsoft also funded a community technology centre in Sofia, which trains members of the community as well as training more than 200 trainers to teach others IT skills using Speech Lab.
Since the introduction of Speech Lab, Foundation Horizonti and 19 local branches of the Union of the Blind have made the technology freely available throughout Bulgaria.
Commenting on the impact of Speech Lab, Ismail Salih Ismail, a trainer and volunteer at Foundation Horizonti explains: “Before the development of Speech Lab, we were constrained to use Russian synthesisers that were not appropriate for the Bulgarian language. With Speech Lab, access to Bulgarian websites has increased by 100 percent.” Another trainer, Ivaylo Marinov, adds: “The most important element for me is that the people I have trained are now able to look for work or create their own businesses. People are also able to make new friends over the Internet and access a range of services. In short, through Speech Lab people can improve their professional qualifications and become more integrated within society.”
Foundation Horizonti chairman Husein Ismail says that “Speech Lab has made a great contribution to the visually impaired community in Bulgaria, giving us the chance to have a normal life and moderate our future independently. I think undertaking similar projects in other countries will be of great value for the people and society, and we are ready to share our knowledge and experience with them.”
ADIE IN FRANCE:
Supporting unemployed and poor people to become entrepreneurs
In France, where unemployment is high, lack of finance and insufficient skills prevent many people from fulfilling their dream of running their own small business.
Created in 1989, Adie (Association for the right to economic initiative) is an organisation that aims to support unemployed and poor people across France to create a small business through microfinance and skills training. In 2004, Adie and Microsoft formed a partnership to open IT training centres to provide training on IT and small business management.
Over 22 IT training centres are now established across France, providing two-day courses at the end of which trainees are eligible to receive a refurbished computer. Often, the people who come to the course are scared of computers but are innovators and entrepreneurs at heart.
Catherine Morel, 45, is one such individual. She had always wanted to be a seamstress and clothes designer but due to financial and family hardship had worked in temporary jobs. When she heard about the Adie programme, Catherine jumped at an opportunity that has changed her life. After presenting her project for approval, Catherine obtained an Adie microcredit and also took an IT and business skills course at the Toulouse IT training centre, opened by Adie and Microsoft.
Catherine had never used a computer before, but today is confident in her book-keeping and managing orders from her clients, for whom she produces original, custom made clothes. “I love to create,” says Catherine. “For me drawing and designing is a true passion. I design my own models from scratch, make patterns for mannequins, and my daughter shows off my designs with her friends at our neighbourhood events.” She has regained confidence in her abilities, and now has the capability to provide for her family. “I love my new business and I could not have done it without the help of Adie and Microsoft. I am very grateful for the opportunity they have provided me,” she says.
Since Adie's creation in 1989, 42,990 SMEs have been created through the Adie microcredit programme. With the introduction of the IT training centres, the positive influence of Adie is being extended even further. Marie Nowak, Adie's founder, says the Adie- Microsoft partnership is particularly relevant. ”It addresses three key issues of today's society - to reduce the digital divide, support the unemployed to get back to work, and provide essential support to SMEs created by unemployed workers.”